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Begin the year with … The Staff of Life

Challah (Provided photo — Yvonna Fast)

January is National Wheat Bread Month. As winter blasts through our region, baking bread will warm up your home as well as your soul. Bread, bagels, crackers, cakes, cookies, muffins, pizza and pasta are just some of the foods made with wheat.

Bread is our oldest processed food and has been called the “staff of life.” Before the invention of ovens, Neolithic cooks baked their bread on stones heated in a fire, then laid out in the hot sun to dry. The earliest breads were unleavened; the first archaeological evidence for bread leavened with yeast comes from Egypt in 4,000 BC.

To make it, grains of wheat are crushed to form flour, then mixed with water to form a dough that is baked. Most bread is made with wheat because wheat contains more gluten than other grains. Rye, oat and corn breads usually contain some wheat flour.

Gluten (from Latin gluten, “glue”) makes dough stretch, allowing it to trap air molecules. This permits dough to rise and keep its shape, resulting in light, fluffy bread. It also gives baked goods their chewy, satisfying texture. About 80% of the protein in the endosperm of wheat is gluten (which is actually made up of the proteins glutenin and gliadin).

Wheat (triticum) is native to southwest Asia, and was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 9,000 years ago. Today, wild einkorn wheat can still be found in the Middle East. Wheat cultivation expanded from there into southern Europe, eastern Africa and northern China. The ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Romans and Finns all had gods and goddesses of wheat.

Bread loaves (Provided photo — Yvonna Fast)

Wheat was unknown in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans ground corn into flour and baked tortillas. It is also not popular in the Orient, where rice is the chief grain consumed.

Today, wheat is the most important grain crop in the world — and there are thousands of wheat (triticum) varieties. These are categorized by color, hardness, and time of planting. So we have spring wheat and winter wheat; red wheat and white wheat; hard and soft wheat. In the United States today, Kansas grows the most wheat, followed by North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and Washington.

A kernel of wheat, also called a wheat berry, contains about 11% protein. In addition, it contains important vitamins — especially B vitamins — minerals, both soluble and insoluble fiber to aid digestion, and carbohydrates for energy.

The two most common types of wheat are durum wheat (Triticum turgidum durum) which is made into pasta, and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum vulgare) which is used for most baked goods. Semolina, used to make high-quality pasta, is the coarsely ground, granular prime endosperm of durum wheat.

Modern wheat is different than ancient wheat. Today’s wheat has been genetically engineered for higher gluten content. Heirloom varieties include spelt, kamut and emmer.

Emmer (Triticum turgidum dicoccum) was one of the earliest domesticated wheat varieties in the Fertile Crescent, and a standard staple for the Romans. It was displaced by durum wheat, which is easier to hull. It is still used in Italy, where the gourmet specialty is called farro and thought by some to make the best pasta.

Kamut (Triticum turgidum turanicum) is an Egyptian heirloom wheat variety known as King Tut’s wheat. Rich and buttery-tasting, it is grown on organic farms and made into whole-grain products.

Spelt (Triticum aestivum spelta) is less compatible with modern mechanical harvesters and fertilizers. In the twelfth century, St. Hildegard called it the best of grains and considered it highly nourishing. It can replace wheat in most recipes.

Triticale (x Triticosecale rimpaui) is a 20th-centurywheat and rye hybrid. It grows easily without commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and is grown organically and sustainably in parts of Europe.

Throughout history, bread has been a powerful food. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs used the production and distribution of grain as a way to control the Egyptian people. Bread shortages also helped spur the French Revolution in 1789.

A basket of bread on the table is a customary accompaniment to many meals. From Mid-Eastern pita to Scottish scones, Irish soda bread, Italian focaccia, French baguettes, Jewish challah bread, biscuits, crackers…. flatbreads and raised breads… sourdough, whole-wheat, rye, oat and corn breads… the choice is enormous.

Four-Ingredient Artisan Bread

We have been using this basic bread recipe for many years.

Ingredients:

3 cups warm water

1 1/2 Tablespoons yeast

1 1/2 Tablespoons salt

6 1/2 cups flour

Directions:

Dissolve yeast in water; add salt and flour. Mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until well combined. Allow to sit, loosely covered, about 2 hours.

Sprinkle top of dough with a little flour and divide into 2 or 3 parts. Shape loaves with your hands and place them on parchment paper. Let dough rest and raise 20 – 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, and place a pizza stone or cast iron skillet to heat in the oven. If you wish, you can refrigerate part of this dough for up to 2 weeks at this point.

Carefully slide the bread with the parchment paper onto the hot pizza stone. Immediately set a pan with 1 cup of water in the oven. Bake about 40 minutes.

Makes 2 loaves.

For a crispier bottom crust, slide the bread off the parchment paper after about 20 – 25 minutes.

Note: This recipe is not made in a bread pan. If you don’t have a pizza stone or cast iron skillet, try a cookie sheet — though that does not concentrate the heat the way a clay pizza stone or thick cast iron does.

For a whole-wheat loaf, use 3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour and 3 cups unbleached flour.

For rye bread, use 2 cups rye, 1 cup whole wheat and 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour.

For oat bread, use 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour, and add 3 cups rolled oats.

Sandy’s Scotch Scones

Ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup (one stick) of butter

1/2 cup oats

3/4 cup half ‘n half (can also use cream or milk)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a baking sheet, or cover with parchment.

Sift or mix the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a bowl.

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients. You can do this with the steel blade of a food processor or a pastry blender.

Stir in the oats, then the cream. The dough should form a smooth ball.

On a floured board or countertop, roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thick. Use a glass or cookie cutter to cut out the scones.

Transfer to prepared cookie sheet and brush the tops with a little more cream.

Place in oven and bake about 30 to 40 minutes, or until they are golden brown.

Makes 20 two-inch scones.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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